But Were They Gay? The Mystery of Same-Sex Love in the 19th Century

It was a time of "Boston marriages" between women and intimate letters between men. But what happened behind closed doors is anybody's guess.

19th-century-wide.jpgAbraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Sarah Orne Jewett all had passionate same-sex friendships. (Adapted from Wikimedia Commons images) 

In August 1890, Walt Whitman opened an awkward piece of fan mail. "In your conception of Comradeship," wrote British literary critic John Addington Symonds, "do you contemplate the possible intrusion of those semi-sexual emotions and actions which no doubt do occur between men?"

It's a question modern critics have asked as well -- and some have pretty definitively answered it. "Walt Whitman and Gay Liberation are nearly synonymous for me," wrote cultural historian Rictor Norton in a 1999 essay. Norton points to Whitman's 1860 "Calamus" poems as a sort of coming-out letter, filled with lines like these:

The one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast -- And that night I was happy.

After reading such passages, Symonds (who later wrote about his own sexual experiences with men) must have been disappointed by Whitman's reply. "That the calamus part has even allow'd the possibility of such construction as mention'd is terrible," Whitman responded, insisting that Symonds was making "morbid inferences -- wh' are disavow'd by me & seem damnable."

It's hard to imagine any modern poet writing about lying in another man's arms and then calling homosexuality "damnable." But the kind of same-sex intimacy Whitman described -- and enjoyed in real life -- was accepted at the time as a natural part of heterosexuality. When editors did censor Whitman's work, they left the "Calamus" poems intact and instead cut his descriptions of male-female passion. ("Love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching," Whitman wrote, describing a bride and groom on their wedding night. "Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice.")

"Certainly, in his poetry, Whitman tries to be omnisexual," says David S. Reynolds, a CUNY graduate professor who specializes in 19th century American culture and has written several books on Whitman. "He even wants to exude a kind of sexuality toward the physical earth and the ocean." But it was more than that, as Reynolds explains. "Showing passion and affection was a more common part of the daily experience than it is today. America was a young nation, a new nation, and there was a sense of brotherhood."

That brotherly love certainly existed between Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed. The two men slept together in the same bed for four years, and Speed wrote to Lincoln in 1842, "You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting -- I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing."

Another American president, James A. Garfield, wrote passionate notes to his college friend Harry Rhodes. "Harry Dear, do you know how much I miss you? In the school -- the church, at home, in labor or leisure -- sleeping or waking, the want of your presence is felt. I knew I loved you, but you have left a larger void than I ever knew you filled." A few months later, Garfield wrote to Rhodes, "I would that we might lie awake in each other's arms for one long wakeful night."

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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